Thursday for our Spanish lesson, Arnie and I went with our teachers Gladys and Angelica to the Thursday market in the village of Zaachila, about 15 miles southwest of Oaxaca. In the bus, an old lady told us she was going to the market to buy turkey and chicken eggs so that she could raise the birds for meat. She also told me the name of a local plant that we saw along the roadside – huamuchil – and how to use the seeds in tamales. We have learned that if we want to know something, one of the best ways is to ask the “abuelitas” and “abuelitos” (grandmothers and grandfathers) that we meet in the streets and markets. They are the ones that remember the traditional ways of doing things, and they have been very kind. I like it that Mexicans use “abuelita/abuelito” as a term of affection for all old people, not just their own grandfathers and grandmothers. It reminds us that the old people are a treasure to be respected by us all.
In Zaachila, one of the vendors let us sample from her big bottles of mezcal. Each bottle had something different in it to flavor it – pieces of pineapple, guayaba, rosemary, etc. Tasted great, but we decided that we didn’t real need to buy a big bottle.
We also stopped at a stand where a woman was making the famous traditional drink of Oaxaca, tejate. It’s quite a process. First, she mixes ground corn, Mexican cinnamon, and dried flowers from chocolate trees, all in a huge pottery bowl. She adds water, a little at a time, and makes a thick paste. Then she gradually adds more water until the mixture is thin enough to drink. For some reason the mixing all has to be done with bare hands and arms, up to the elbows. She told me that it really takes a lot of work and a lot of strength to do it. When the tejate is ready, it is served in traditional bowls made from gourds (jicaras), painted red and painted with big flowers. It looks like curdled beige milk. Usually we don’t eat food in the markets because it’s easy to get sick here, but I just had to try, because I’d heard it’s sweet, subtle, and refreshing. I bought a bowlful, and Arnie and I both had a sip. Well, I had several sips because it was delicious. We spent the rest of the day wondering if had been stupid to drink it, but we never got sick.
Then we encountered an abuelita who was selling corn out of big burlap sacks. There are lots of colors of corn here – white, yellow, red, black, and more. We asked where it came from, and she said she and her husband had grown it. Among poor people, she said, husband and wife work together in the fields. She said it was last year’s harvest. The rains hadn’t come this year, and if the rains don’t come, there would be no corn to harvest this year. She told us it had become drier and drier in recent years in Oaxaca. Before, there had been more rain and it had been easy to harvest abundant crops of corn. “But still we continue.”
Because of the droughts, she said, there had been many Oaxacans forced to travel to the United States to earn a living. She herself had a brother-in-law in Los Angeles and a son in Seattle. She said it was unjust the way immigrants were treated in the U.S. They die of thirst crossing the desert and are shot at the border, she fumed. (A recent shooting of a 14-year-old Mexican by a U.S. border patrol agent who crossed the line into Mexico has caused outrage throughout the country, especially since the U.S. has not allowed the agent to be extradited to be tried in Mexican courts.) The abuelita reasoned that since people in the U.S. no longer cultivate their own fields, they need Mexican workers and ought to treat them better. As I said, if you want to find out what’s really going on, just ask an abuelita.
We also met a man selling jicara gourds that he had decorated beautifully. He said he painted the flowered red ones (the kind used to serve tejate) with paint from the hardware store. But he had decorated others with beautiful combinations of rich colors that he obtained by grinding local rocks into a powder. He had learned the art from his grandfather, and had now taught his own two sons, who help him in the workshop. I bought a beautiful jicara of deep blue and tan, decorated with delicate lines of black paint.
The bus back from Zaachila was crowded. An old woman holding a live chicken sat down beside our teacher Angelica and began to feed it a tomato. Arnie thought about looking at the pictures in his camera, but he decided not to, for fear he would look like a rich tourist. However, then the old woman with the chicken got out her I-phone and began showing pictures to Angelica. Just goes to show … something.
It was a wonderful visit to the Zaachila market, and I am grateful and somewhat amazed that people here are so generous in telling us about their work and their lives.